Catholic lawyers honor Miami attorney once imprisoned for corruption


William Castro speaks during a mass at Gesu Catholic Church in downtown Miami on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. Castro, a former attorney who was imprisoned in a notorious corruption scandal in the 1990s has since rebuilt his life and career helping the community. He was awarded the “Lex Christi, Lex Amoris” award by the Miami Catholic Lawyers Guild.

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On a recent morning in Miami federal court, a man prepared to plead guilty to gun and drug charges. The proceedings were unremarkable, the type of hearing that happens every day in Miami — except for one man at the defense table, the moment was nearly three decades in the making.

Dressed in a black wool suit, he stood up. ”William Castro,” he announced. “Co-counsel of record on behalf of the defendant.”

For the first time since he was charged in 1992 as part of a landmark Miami judicial corruption case, Operation Court Broom, Castro appeared in court in person as a licensed attorney, capping a winding road to redemption. His community service in the decades since has been so exceptional that on Thursday, the 67-year-old Castro was honored by the Miami Catholic Lawyers Guild.

The “Lex Christi, Lex Amoris” award is given to legal professionals who exemplify Catholic values — and it’s usually given to well-known judges or attorneys. After emerging from prison, Castro returned to work as a paralegal but it’s what he has done outside the profession that is extraordinary.

He’s devoted over 13,000 hours to community service, working as an advocate for at-risk children, organizing gift drives for migrant children and leading church retreats. He and his wife also adopted three children.

At Thursday’s annual “Red Mass” at the historic Gesu Church in downtown Miami, dozens of lawyers and judges gathered to pray and listen to Castro’s story. He admitted he was still a little shocked to get the award.

“The difference between the Willie of 1992 and 2022 is not just that I have a lot more gray hair,” Castro said. “It is that my faith and moral compass finally caught up to my skills. I have grown and changed over time, for the better. I am still a work in progress. And I know I can always do more. And I will.”

William Castro, second from right, prays with his family, sons Eric and Danny, and his wife Mari Jimenez during a mass at Gesu Catholic Church in downtown Miami on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. Jose A. Iglesias [email protected]

But while he recently regained his law license in New York, Castro can only appear in his hometown courts in limited circumstances: in federal court, if admitted by a judge as an out-of-state attorney. That’s what happened in the Miami courtroom of U.S. Judge Federico Moreno, who said he “struggled” with whether to allow Castro to appear pro hac vice in this one case.

“If there was anyone who has been fully rehabilitated, it’s him,” said Moreno, who attended Thursday’s mass and ceremony. “We don’t see that often. He really did change his life. I think it’s an exceptional thing.”

The Florida Supreme Court, which initially disbarred him for 10 years, has since refused to readmit him to the bar — permanently.

Still, Miami attorney Raoul Cantero — himself a former Florida Supreme Court justice — told gatherers Thursday that while “that court did not believe in redemption,” his friend Castro can now practice in New York, and several federal and appellate courts.

“If we as Catholics believe in redemption, then we cannot help but admire Willy’s long and faithful struggle, not only serving our community but making it back to the legal profession,” Cantero said. “Willy offers hope for all those who fall from grace.”

Operation Court Broom

Castro was ensnared in Operation Court Broom, a scandal that might not resonate with much of the public today, but that rocked Miami-Dade’s legal community in the early 1990s.

Back then, the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building was a free-wheeling place, where judges often gave taxpayer-paid cases — appointments for indigent clients who could not be represented by the Public Defender’s Office — to friends.

The FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents probe uncovered that justice at the state criminal courthouse was often for sale. An undercover informant, a colorful defense attorney named Ray Takiff, passed out marked $100 bills to judges in exchange for court appointments, bail reductions, the return of seized property and orders to suppress evidence.

Court Sketch Gallery 07 EKM
A courtroom sketch of one of the Court Broom federal trials in Miami the early 1990s. The attorneys depicted are Ed O’Donnell and Ed Carhart. The sketch was part of a gallery created by former Miami Judge Diane Ward on the fourth floor of Miami-Dade’s criminal courthouse. Emily Michot Miami Herald Staff

In all, four former judges, six lawyers and one businessman were convicted. Another former Miami-Dade judge, Phillip Davis, was acquitted of accepting $20,000 in illegal money — but in 2010, he was sentenced to two decades in Florida prison for stealing public grant money.

One of those convicted Court Broom attorneys was Castro, who was not among the most high-profile defendants. He was nevertheless well-known in the justice community.

Castro was Ivy League-educated, boasting a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He lived on the well-heeled island of Key Biscayne. He drove a candy-apple-red Porsche Turbo.

“I was smart. I was board certified in criminal law. I let people know I was smart,” Castro recalled. “I was superficial. I was arrogant. Selfish, but didn’t know it. I never thought I was a bad guy. I really didn’t think I tried to hurt anyone.”

He was done in by his friendly relationship with a crooked Miami-Dade circuit judge named Roy Gelber, who summoned him to his chambers one day in the late 1980s. Gelber asked Castro to step into the hallway and made a startling pitch: he’d start steering more appointments his way, in exchange for 20 percent of the taxpayer-funded fees.

Castro didn’t answer right away. Over the next week, he wracked his brain for justifications: He didn’t want to be on bad terms with any judges, he reckoned.

“Ultimately, ‘I said, if not me, somebody else,’ And I chose me,” Castro said. “Worst mistake of my life.”

Castro did not shirk the clients — there was never any evidence he did anything but provide dogged legal work for the accused.

But when Gelber ended up cooperating with prosecutors, a grand jury indicted Castro and four other defense attorneys in May 1992. At trial more than a year later, prosecutors told jurors that Castro landed 64 cases worth $77,204 from Gelber.

Castro and three others were convicted of racketeering, bribery and mail fraud. He was sentenced to three years and one month in federal prison, plus three years of supervised release. Under an agreement with the Florida Bar, Castro also agreed to a suspension of 10 years. That meant, perhaps in the future, he could resume his law practice.

Prison to the pews

In many ways, Court Broom turned out to be the best thing for Castro.

Before he went to prison, Castro was wracked with guilt and shame. He’d only been married with his wife, fellow attorney (and now state prosecutor) Mari Jimenez, for six months before Court Broom broke. It disrupted their plans to have children.

They returned to the Catholic church. He eventually attended Emmaus, a church retreat program that he says forged his faith. “It was like I witnessed a parallel universe,” Castro said.

In federal prison, Castro traded in his tailored suits for inmate jumpsuits, his law practice for cutting vegetables and washing dishes in the kitchen.

Archbishop of Miami Thomas Wenski, recipient of the “Lex Christi, Lex Amoris” award William Castro, and presenter of the award Raoul Cantero, pose for photos at Gesu Catholic Church in downtown Miami on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. Jose A. Iglesias [email protected]

After he was released, Castro didn’t want anything to do with the law. A church brother hired him for a company selling goods to U.S. Embassies around the world. Eventually, Castro eased back into the legal field, at first writing briefs as a paralegal for a civil firm, then starting his own business doing legal research for attorneys across South Florida.

Beyond work, Castro felt a renewed purpose.

The couple became Florida foster parents. They also adopted three babies. Two of them, Nina, 18, and Eric, 18, are in college today. The third, Daniel, 16, is a junior at Christopher Columbus High.

Castro became a guardian ad litem, a Florida program in which non-attorneys represent children who have been the victims of crimes. He’s also been involved in organizing events and gift drives for the Redland Christian Migrant Association.

Castro hasn’t shied away from his past, giving frequent talks about Court Broom at legal conferences, law schools and educational workshops. “I’ve been very comfortable in talking about my journey,” he said.

Permanent disbarment

That journey, however, did not sway the Florida Supreme Court, which in 2012 denied him readmission, despite him staying out of trouble and his work in the community. Nearly 200 witnesses — a who’s who of lawyers, current and former judges and community members — wrote letters supporting his re-entry.

In a concurring opinion, then-Justice Barbara Pariente acknowledged she “struggled” with the decision because there was “overwhelming evidence of rehabilitation.” But she nonetheless sided with the rest of the court, saying Castro’s original crime “goes to the very core of our public’s trust and confidence in the judicial system.”

William Castro is congratulated by well-wishers after a mass and ceremony at Gesu Catholic Church in downtown Miami on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. Jose A. Iglesias [email protected]

The decision left Castro disappointed. The Florida Board of Bar Examiners, according to records, had initially declined to issue a permanent disbarment and instead told him to apply again in two years. But the board, records show, backtracked and recommended to the Supreme Court he be permanently disbarred.

Castro said he believes the whole affair was “intellectually dishonest.”

“Under the rules they created I’m not shy to say, I deserve to be readmitted,” Castro said. “It was their rules. I followed the rules.”

The news wasn’t all dire.

Castro reapplied to serve in New York, where he’d been admitted as an attorney in the 1980s. In addition to the letters of support, three witnesses testified during a hearing: former-Circuit Judge Victoria Brennan, who was an attorney for Gov. Jeb Bush when he restored Castro’s civil rights, former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero and U.S. Magistrate John O’Sullivan — who as a former prosecutor was the one who convicted Castro.

O’Sullivan, in his testimony, recalled that years later he got to know Castro, even attending an Emmaus retreat.

So I have never testified at one of these bar hearings before. I never supported anybody I prosecuted and I prosecuted hundreds of people in this type of effort,” O’Sullivan testified. “This is my first time doing this and the reason I’m doing it is because I believe that Willy is rehabilitated.”

On Thursday, O’Sullivan attended the mass, afterward chatting with Vincent Flynn — Castro’s defense lawyer at trial. O’Sullivan recalled thinking “truth is stranger than fiction.”

Said O’Sullivan: “It’s amazing to be here and see how far he’s come in 30 years.”

This story was originally published December 2, 2022 5:30 AM.

David Ovalle covers crime and courts in Miami. A native of San Diego, he graduated from the University of Southern California and joined the Herald in 2002 as a sports reporter.